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The Electronic Telegraph England v South Africa, Group A
Scyld Berry - 22 May 1999

England's limitations laid bare

South Africa (225 - 7) beat England (103) by 122 runs

England's Darren Gough sends South Africa's Shaun Pollock's middle stump flying

One-Day internationals do not hold the same appeal as Test matches for connoisseurs because they do not have the time to allow for many fluctuations. England's World Cup qualifier against South Africa was a glorious exception to the rule, as it fluctuated wildly before settling in favour of the World Cup favourites and their formid- able machine.

South Africa made a perfect start to their innings, collapsed and had time to recover. England by contrast made an imperfect start, after a couple of debated decisions by umpire Srini Venkataraghavan, and proceeded to be overwhelmed by fast bowling of a greater calibre than their own.

In their first match South Africa had the resilience to win after losing early wickets in pursuit of an Indian total of 253. In their second they came back after being 122 for eight against the cup holders, Sri Lanka. Together with their experience yesterday, a fine team is being forged in this process of bouncing back from adversity, if the South Africans were not one already.

After their double misfortune against Sri Lanka in midweek, South Africa may have been due some luck, but Nasser Hussain must have wished that it had not come at his expense. He flicked at the new ball down the leg side and not only he, but also the non-striker, Graeme Hick, looked aggrieved when Venkat raised one arm instead of extending both.

Alec Stewart had won the toss for the third time in a row in this tournament and led the sterling fightback in the field after the South African opening stand, but his own innings was ended by his first ball, which did not swing away as he had expected but nipped back instead. It was a marginal lbw decision, a bail- trimmer if anything, and without their opening batsmen England found themselves horribly exposed.

Graeme Hick and Graham Thorpe were building a partnership - 33 in 11 overs - when Allan Donald interrupted them as rudely as a man butting into their conversation. Thorpe cover-drove Donald supremely. Next ball Donald came back with a champion's response, swinging the ball back a shade into the left-hander and beating him for Shoaib-like pace as well.

Hick pulled to midwicket, Andrew Flintoff tried to drive on the front foot, as he has been brought up to do, but was in no position there to stay on top of Donald's pace and bounce. England's realistic objective thereafter was to massage their run-rate, in case they finish equal with another country after the qualifying round.

A cold wind blew mainly from the north across the Oval yesterday, bringing with it the reality that England can compete with the best only in very English conditions. They bowled their best, at least after South Africa's openers had been separated, but the rest of their cricket was exposed as being that of worthy, losing semi-finalists at best.

England rallied so well after South Africa had made their wonderful start because their pace bowlers, in the differing shapes of Alan Mullally and Mark Ealham, found an excellent length and stuck to it until the end of the innings, when Darren Gough and Ealham again kept Lance Klusener relatively quiet with yorkers. England's fielding though was not so flawless, which allowed South Africa to set a competitive total.

The transformation in England's favour began after the first drinks break, at 18 overs, by which stage South Africa had reached 90 without any suggestion of a wicket falling. Alec Stewart had tried all of his bowlers except Flintoff; Gary Kirsten and, in particular, Herschelle Gibbs had crashed the ball to all parts as part of a rare century opening stand for South Africa (only their second in 17 months).

During this first drinks break, while the England players munched their bananas, Stewart decided to move Mullally from the Vauxhall to the pavilion end and to pair him with Ealham. Steadily they clawed England back into the game. Gradually they turned the screw on Gibbs, who began to fret after his earlier free hitting and enjoyment of Angus Fraser's return to the England side in place of Ian Austin.

England's bowling was disciplined overall - they conceded fewer extras than any side had done in the World Cup so far - once Ealham and Mullally had shown them how. After Gibbs had pulled to deep square and Kirsten had inside-edged a drive, none of the South African batsman got going until Klusener came to clump his usual invaluable contribution.

In the 12 previous matches of the tournament no team batting first, when conditions have been at their most difficult, had done better than South Africa's score of 73 without loss after 15 overs - and it was a head start which was to make all the difference. Thereafter South Africa's batting was poor, except for Klusener's, and England's much worse still.

The game slipped away from England once South Africa had bottomed out at 168 for seven. Stewart relied on Flintoff in the later overs, and the young giant found bounce to bowl some ``heavy balls''. But Klusener dislikes spin more than anything, and Robert Croft might have stopped him before he had turned the game.

England's fielding faltered as well. Nine basic mistakes were made, conceding 13 runs, and that excludes a cruel bounce off an old crease which deceived Hussain at point. A fumble by Hussain at long-on in the last over allowed Klusener to regain the strike with a second run, which was followed by a six over long-on next ball. This time South Africa took only 13 runs from the last over of their innings, compared with 22 against Sri Lanka, but it was still enough to end their innings on a high note.

England have been thrifty in their bowling, but thrift alone does not win World Cups. Their batting had not been tested below number four before yesterday, and it was found wanting. They should still qualify for the Super Sixes, but the points they have secured against Kenya and Sri Lanka could prove to be worthless as far as the Super Six phase is concerned.

South Africa, on the other hand, have been as dominant in the qualifying round as they were last time in the Asian World Cup, and are less likely to be derailed by a brilliant hundred from Brian Lara. They lack a spinner - Steve Elworthy again was preferred to the slow left-armer Nicky Boje yesterday - but their opening batsmen have now made runs at last, and with each setback that is overcome they bristle ever more with intent. It will take an unorthodox team such as Pakistan, rather than England, to withstand them.

Source: The Electronic Telegraph
Editorial comments can be sent to The Electronic Telegraph at et@telegraph.co.uk